Most novice writers have heard the advice: “Make your characters suffer!” Aside from nudging us to give in to our most sadistic impulses, the advice seems a bit exaggerated. Should we, twisting the meaning of Stephen King’s injunction, “Kill our darlings?” What rationale deems it necessary?
We all understand the need to sometimes bump off a main character. What would be the point of The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote if their protagonists had lived to ripe old ages? Don Quixote would have ended in the madhouse, Gatsby in jail and Montagues and Capulets would go on feuding in the streets of Verona, until Doomsday. Death in novels always has an objective, to teach the reader (as well as other characters in the book) a moral lesson. Whether is Anna Karenina jumping in front of a train, or Sydney Carton climbing to the guillotine, there is a moral behind their death: It is a far better thing to die than to go on sinning or leading a dull meaningless life.
In Little Women, Beth March’s last days are a study in fortitude, but her death is also a rite of passage for Jo. After her sister´s demise, Jo grows more sedate, less impatient, and much more aware of virtues and values. Thus she becomes the right companion for worthy professor Baher. But Beth, Dickens’s Little Nell and Uncle Tom are boring characters. They are icons of suffering, archetypical victims. We don’t really cry over their woes. Because they endure their pain with almost inhuman resilience and resignation, we cannot identify with them. And that is the first good reason not to subject your character to Chinese torture.
We want our favorite characters to get a break, to get angry at life’s injustice, to fight back not to be beaten down and turned into martyrs. It´s why Jo March will always be more memorable than Beth. It´s why we love when Eliza hops over ice blocks to escape from slave catchers. She is the most outstanding character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, much more than the poor old slave whose name appears on the title.
|Eliza's courageous flight|
I particularly resent killing characters just to make another character suffer. Don Quixote gives a lovely speech and dies in his bed, but it is poor Sancho whom I mourn. His master has gone to fool’s heaven, but he remains on earth bereft of all the promises the Knight offered him, he has no island to rule, no riches to share with his family, no illusions. That is truly heartbreaking. I wonder if Cervantes realized how unfair he was to Sancho.
|Don Quixotes death|
Was Hemingway aware of his unfairness to his characters in For Whom the Bells Toll? This classic Spanish Civil War tale describes the efforts of Robert Jordan, an American Professor fighting for the Loyalists, to blow up a bridge. The action takes place in a couple of days. Robert knows and we know that he´ll die. Therefore, we like him, but we don´t grow too attached to him
However, during this time, Robert meets a young girl named Maria. She has undergone every possible horror. She´s been uprooted from her home, her parents had been shot and she has been raped by the Fascists. Robert and Maria become lovers, he dies, and ... I am furious! What´s the point of making Maria suffer again and again? If at least she had been killed fighting alongside her lover, but to experience a bit of happiness and then greater loss? That is sheer cruelty.
Homer ends The Iliad with Hector’s death. Surely not an eye is dry after hearing of heroic Hector vanquished by Achilles who adds insult to injury by defiling his enemy´s corpse. That is sad, but sadder still is the fate of those left behind. And it took several centuries before Euripides dared to describe, in his plays Andromache and The Trojan Women, what Homer didn’t bear to do in his time: the fall of Troy, the murder of Hector´s parents, and the sorrows of his wife. Besides losing her man, Andromache has to see her only child tortured to death, while she is raped and forced to become a conqueror’s concubine.
Bottom line, forget Hector (even if played by scrumptious Eric Bana), the one that really deserves our pity is Andromache. So I understand why Homer doesn’t tell us her terrible ordeal, or why Wolfgang Petersen gave her a happy ending in his film version of The Iliad. Isn’t that evidence enough that hurting loveable characters has a limit? Why advise it then? There are those who claim that mistreating characters adds conflict and suspense to the plot, and suffering make characters evolve and grow. It reminds me of Victorian teachers who beat their students to make them strong.
I am the first to recognize Tolstoy’s genius but I don´t understand why he creates such a marvelous dashing character like Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace, just to make him unhappy, and finally kill him. To me, War and Peace ends with Bolkonsky´s death. I don´t care about dense Pierre or fickle Natasha. I can’t share their happiness since it is based in Andrei´s departure. The author must have realized his blunder because he ends his novel, not in Pierre and Natasha´s domestic bliss, but in Bolkonsky´s son vowing to grow up to be worthy of his father.
I love William Styron’s Sophie´s Choice, and I love Sophie despite her victimization at the hands of her creator. Throughout that thick volume we see Sophie suffer everyday. Not only does she bear the scars of her Auschwitz past, not only does she carry a guilty secret, but she goes through a daily ordeal living with a pathologically jealous lover (and schizophrenic to boot).
Eventually, Stingo (the narrator) pulls her away from abusive Nathan, and offers her redemption, but Sophie, after revealing her horrible secret, chooses death. All the torments she has endured, including her part in the death of her children, have not made her stronger or better suited for life. Strange but her suicide is a relief, I am happy her pain is finally over. Is that what we get from torturing characters to the point of no return? We want to mercy kill them!
Excuse me if for a moment I wander into self-reference. As a child, I loved visiting with my mother´s side of the family, a bunch of enigmatic but extremely generous people. Once, I must have been around nine years old, one of the uncles offered to take me to see the latest Disney’s flick. Full of self importance, I informed him that I was “too old” for cartoons. Now I only enjoyed “movies so moving that made me cry.” He looked at me as if was demented. “Why? The whole point of going to the pictures is to have fun,” he said ”not to suffer.” I didn’t realize it back then, but all these mysterious relatives, who spoke in odd languages among themselves and had funny numbers on their arms, had seen enough suffering to last them a lifetime. Now they wanted their entertainment to be “fun.”
As serious readers we shun superficiality, we demand realism, we wish for conflict, we need to see our characters struggling against odds, but we also long for balance. We want our beloved characters to prevail, to be rewarded for everything they have gone through. We want a glimmer of hope! That´s “fun."
Don´t you agree? Were you ever upset or disappointed by a novel or film where characters went through too much unnecessary angst or had an undeserved unhappy ending? As a writer how do you maintain equilibrium between chastising and rewarding your characters?